Intel’s new Atom strategy pits it against traditional smartphones
built on technology from ARM Holdings.
Two years ago, it may have seemed that Intel had given up on its hopes of making a big splash in wireless handsets. Not so.
Intel may have sold its former communications and application processor group and XScale technology to Marvel Technology in 2006, but it still had its eyes on the handset prize. It just wanted to do it a different way.
Nokia’s N810 uses ARM products and will be
available later this year through Sprint’s Xohm.
The company is getting back into wireless devices, but coming at it from a different direction. It wants to enter the smartphone market from the top down, so to speak, by using the architecture it uses in its chips for laptops and desktops.
Intel’s new strategy, announced this year with a Centrino Atom family of chipsets, is further evidence of a blurring of the traditional computing and mobile phone worlds. There is one constant in wireless handsets, though, and that is power consumption. Battery technology hasn’t changed that much, so device manufacturers and semiconductor companies have to keep power consumption as low as possible.
The fastest-growing consumer electronics device market in the world for several years has been the cell phone. In 2007, there were about 1.12 billion mobile phones sold, which compares to the 271.2 million PCs and laptops sold last year.
Meanwhile, smartphone sales are growing faster than the overall cell phone market. Smartphones are generally defined as devices running an open, high-level operating system like Symbian, Microsoft Windows Mobile, Palm or RIM. ABI Research estimates smartphones comprised 10% of the total handset market in 2007 but will be nearly one-third of the market by 2013.
Today’s smartphones use a variety of silicon, starting with a central processing unit (CPU) but often with companion or integrated chips to run various functions on the phone. These include multimedia processors for audio and video, graphics, games, video encoders or decoders, memory, power management, connectivity and communications. There also can be multiple radios in smartphones to connect to a 3G network, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth devices, and soon WiMAX. Phones not only make phone calls, but receive and send e-mail, take photos and video, play music and browse the Internet.
The silicon in smartphones comes from a wide variety of companies, with some of the leaders including Freescale Semiconductors, Qualcomm, Samsung Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments (TI). Although these silicon vendors all compete, they also all have one thing in common – they are all licensees of chip architecture from ARM Limited, based in Cambridge, U.K. ARM doesn’t make chips itself, but licenses its architecture to others.
Products using the ARM architecture have been in mobile phones for about 10 years and in mobile devices longer than that. Apple was one of ARM’s early licensees, using its technology in the ill-fated Apple Newton and still uses it in the iPod and iPhone. Last year, there were about 3 billion ARM-based chips shipped in mobile phones worldwide, an average of 1.7 chips per phone. That’s because ARM’s designs are used in the central processors plus a variety of subsidiary chips.
Jim McGregor, research director and principal analyst for the In-Stat market research firm, says ARM’s central processor technology is in 90% or more of all mobile phones today. The main reason is that ARM’s technology was designed for low power consumption in mobile devices, he says.
Will Strauss, chief analyst for Forward Concepts, estimates 99% of the world’s mobile phones use ARM’s technology. ARM-based devices also are widespread in consumer electronics devices such as personal media players, Strauss says.
As smartphones add capabilities like video, ARM and its licensees have had to add functionality. Each added feature can require additional processing capabilities and demands on battery power, but McGregor says ARM and the chip companies have kept evolving to keep both at the lowest possible levels.
ARM Cortex-A9 single-core graphic.
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There is a potential battle brewing between these two forces, as the world’s leading PC chip manufacturer, Intel, has started making processors for not only Ultra Mobile PCs but what it is calling the Mobile Internet Device (MID).
Gary Koerper, vice president of Platform Planning and Systems Architecture for Motorola’s handset unit, which is an ARM licensee, says Intel and ARM are coming at the same space from different worlds. Intel and its x86 architecture dominate the PC and Internet worlds, while ARM’s technology is optimized for mobile handsets.
“ARM is certainly coming from the smartphone space and trying to work into a mini-PC world, while Intel is coming down from the laptop,” he says. But the latest OMAP chipset from TI is capable of rendering high-definition video while also making voice calls, he says.
According to Koerper, Intel’s challenge is going to be to make a Windows mini-PC with good battery life, while ARM’s challenge will be to render Web pages on a browser as well as the Intel x86 architecture.
Nokia is among the handset manufacturers using ARM products that thinks it has the answer. Nokia just announced its N810 Internet Tablet WiMAX Edition, which will be sold for use on Sprint’s new Xohm wireless broadband network this year. The N810, which runs a Linux OS, has a Mozilla browser like the Firefox browser many people use on their PCs. The device uses a TI OMAP 2420 chipset, which uses an ARM11 core clocked at 400 MHz.
Bob Morris, ARM’s director of mobile computing, says the company has grown its technological skills from the original processor core to a large family that includes application processors, and multiple cores (the iPhone has a half-dozen) to baseband chips.
ARM licensees can use the various architectures or designs and then build their chips with their own interfaces, such as radio communications for 3G, Wi-Fi or WiMAX networks. Many of the components or accelerators that a silicon manufacturer adds are built on a single chip around the ARM core processor.
He says power management is the most important thing in a portable device, more important than how fast the core processor is. One example he gives is TI’s latest ARM-core chip, the OMAP 3440, which has a video accelerator capable of rendering high-definition video. TI’s design allows the video accelerator to run while the ARM chip is turned off to save power.
Power savings is the No. 1 reason ARM believes its approach is the best for mobile devices, although using accelerator chips also is more efficient, Morris says. He said video decoding is a good example. The task can be done using software on the main processor but it is more power-efficient to offload that task to a dedicated accelerator. The dedicator accelerator also does the decoding faster than it could be done on the core, he said, and uses less power.
Mobile Internet Devices (MID) are an emerging product class.
SNAPDRAGONS & SCORPIONS
Even though ARM doesn’t see itself as a competitor to Intel, it has plans to move into MID-like devices – with 5- to 7-inch screens, full Internet browsers, wireless connectivity, multimedia capability and perhaps GPS. These are the Cortex A8 and Cortex A9 processors. ARM has licensed the A8 to about 10 companies, and Morris says there will be products in the market by the end of the year using the platform. Qualcomm is one of the Cortex A8 licensees and used it in its new Snapdragon chipset.
The Cortex A9, which Morris says will show up in devices in three to five years, has the ability to have four processor cores so that the amount of processing power can be scaled according to the application that is running.
Snapdragon is an example of how ARM’s licensees apply their “special sauce” to the ARM core. Qualcomm licenses only the instruction set for the ARM Cortex A8 for its Snapdragon chips and then builds its own chip based on the instruction set, according to Manjit Gill, director of product management for Qualcomm’s chip business unit. Qualcomm has been sampling the Snapdragon chips since November and expects them to be in handsets this year from such manufacturers as HTC and Samsung.
Around the core microprocessor in Snapdragon is a 600 MHz digital signal processor called the Scorpion to accelerate multimedia applications.
TI also uses the Cortex A8 in its latest smartphone chipsets, those that fall in the OMAP3000 family. TI’s OMAP3430, which has been sampling and will appear in devices late this year or early 2009, has four main components – the ARM Cortex A8, a 2D/3D graphics accelerator, a video and audio accelerator and an imaging signal processor of the camera. The video accelerator enables encoding and decoding of high-definition video (720p or 720 lines of progressive scan resolution) so the phone could be hooked up to a large-screen display or even a projector.
The OMAP3430 has a clock rate of up to 800 MHz, according to Avner Goren, director of strategic marketing in TI’s wireless terminal business unit. It also can be used with a variety of wireless modems, including WiMAX, Wi-Fi and 3G. TI also has a reference design and software that can be used by manufacturers, including a VGA touchscreen and TV output. It runs on a Linux platform, which analysts say will be the predominant operating system for these new smartphone/MIDs.
Intel, meanwhile, is coming into the same market with new chips marketed under the Centrino brand. The new chipsets, called Centrino Atom, are due to ship by June. Sharp announced the first device to use the chipset – the D4 model for the Japanese PHS (personal handy-phone system) operator Willcom. The D4 uses a 1.33 GHz Atom processor and runs Windows Vista Home Premium. It also has a Bluetooth headset that can be used to make voice calls. Sharp hasn’t announced any plans to market the device outside of Japan.
Other manufacturers planning to use the Atom include BenQ, Gigabyte, Lenovo, LG Electronics and Toshiba. Most if not all will be MIDs.
The two most important things about the Atom processor is that it is fully x86 compatible and that it is designed for low power consumption, according to Pankaj Kedia, director of global ecosystem programs for Intel’s Ultra Mobility Group. The x86 compatibility means it will use an Internet browser capable of rendering all Internet pages properly.
“What we are able to do is take the PC capability, performance and Internet access and shrink it into a device that you can carry with you all of the time,” he says. He gives as an example a personal navigation device that has Internet access through a wireless modem. The device can provide real-time traffic information, nearby points of interest based on your location and other location-based services. It might even be able to access video from YouTube.
“It has the mind of the PC under the hood, but the heart of a consumer electronics device,” Kedia says. The Atom processor can run at clock speeds up to 1.86 GHz.
The newest ARM processor, the Cortex A8, consumes less than 50 mW of power in active mode, compared to the active power range of 65 mW to 240mW for the five variants of the Intel Atom, according to information from the two companies.
Atom is not a dumbed-down Centrino laptop chip, but rather has been developed over the last four years specifically for the mobile device market, Kedia says.
“Silverthorne (the code name for Atom) was created for the mobile Internet device from the ground up,” he says. “It is a totally new product. Our engineers figured out that we can have up to 1.8 GHz performance in a device that has a 5-inch display and can deliver four to six hours of battery life in constant use.”
While Silverthorne/Atom cut power consumption by 10 times, the next generation Intel has on the design board – code-named Moorestown – will cut power use by another factor of 10, Kedia says. Moorestown, due out in 2009 or 2010, will still have the same performance capabilities. He says it will put Intel’s chips into smartphones.
The new Centrino Atom formally launched April 2 at an Intel Developers Forum. It includes the Atom processor, which is integrated with Intel’s controller hub. The controller, code-named Poulsbo, acts much like an accelerator for 3D graphics and other applications.
“The pure accelerator approach works well if you have a single-function device,” Kedia says. “It doesn’t work well in the age of the Internet. If you go to Facebook there are multiple things going on – video, photos, blogs, connections. The approach we are taking is having a high-performance processor that provides more than just a DSP approach.”
Analysts generally agree Intel has made significant strides with Centrino Atom, but it faces a couple of challenges.
In-Stat’s McGregor says Intel can offer WiMAX radios for the MIDs, but has no other wide-area wireless offering. Because WiMAX is just now rolling out, a WiMAX MID won’t be a mass-market device.
McGregor says a device manufacturer wanting to build a MID for a 3G network would have to buy a modem from another chip manufacturer like Qualcomm or TI. McGregor says those competitors could offer a complete package that includes the ARM-based chipset and 3G modem (Qualcomm does not yet have a WiMAX modem).
It is the next generation Intel has on the drawing board, the Moorestown chipset, that McGregor says will match or beat ARM-based power levels.
Of course, McGregor admits that ARM and its licensees won’t be standing still either. ARM has the advantage in terms of chipset volumes, its power management and its installed base. Intel has x86 compatibility and standards, with PC-like performance. As smartphones and computers become more alike, manufacturers will be making choices based on these strengths.